Joyce Banda’s bold calculations: Ambuje’s Diary 2013 Part 1

It was good to be in Malawi last December and enter the new year in my home country. In my estimation, by far the preoccupation of ordinary Malawians was, and still is, the economic hard times the country is going through and this is not lost on the government of the day.

Perhaps Amayi Mrs. Joyce Banda’s clearest and most focused public address on the economy that I have heard since she became President in April last year was delivered in her Christmas and New Year’s address to the nation and in speeches she has made since.

Elements of her message included, a) that in April 2012 she inherited an economy in the throes of death and state coffers that had been licked clean; b) that the hubris and economic mismanagement of her predecessor caused, among other harms, rupture in Malawi’s foreign relations and consequent stoppage of crucial donor inflows; c) that, particularly, her predecessor’s stubborn refusal to devalue the Kwacha, as recommended by the IMF, set the country off the IMF program which was crucial for IMF and other bilateral assistance.

In her speeches, Amayi emphasizes that her first priority when she became President, therefore, was to get back on the IMF program and to follow, especially, the IMF’s recommendation to devalue the Kwacha. A related priority was to repair dismembered bilateral ties, especially with Great Britain and other donors. She brags that as a result of these efforts most aid has now been re-unlocked, and insists that the midnight of the economic crisis is behind us. She repeats that although things are still tough they could have been much worse otherwise. She assures that, with time and patience, things are bound to turn a much happier corner soon.

President Banda with Economic Planning Minister Goodall Gondwe

President Banda with Economic Planning Minister Goodall Gondwe

For the intermediate and long terms, Amayi declares that her government has identified five areas for special attention and investment. These are Agriculture, Mining, Energy, Tourism and Transportation. In Agriculture she dwells on irrigation, livestock expansion and the effort to encourage farmers to treat their activity as a business enterprise. In Energy she deals mainly with electricity supply expansion, and in Transportation she propounds a vision of improved and expanded road and rail networks. I did not hear her speak about Tourism or Mining with the same level of specificity, however.

The Pitfalls

I had the impression that most people agreed with Amayi that she inheritted an economy in dire straights. Patience, however, is where the problem was. I got the sense that a good portion of the population had little room for patience and expected a better economy yesterday. It is hard to be patient when you are hungry in the morning even when you are told you will have a meal tonight. Not Mrs. Banda’s fault this is, clearly — just human nature.

Some do not feel she made the right decision to devalue the currency since they heard the previous President, late dictator Bingu Mutharika, drum it into their heads that devaluation was no good because it results in inflation. The devaluation has come, and so has very high inflation. The price of everything — from clothing, shelter, treatment and care at private clinics and hospitals, and sending children to school — has risen steeply, doubling in some cases, within the speace of a few months. Food in the open markets is priced astronomically, with the famous and notable exception of Bonya. In certain circles, therefore, this has engendered a sense of vindication, and some nostalgia, for the obstinancy of dead dictator Mutharika towards the IMF.

In cities, there is a notable reduction in electricity blackouts compared to the era of the dictator. However, water stoppages appear to have ratchetted up a notch. In some parts of the capital, for instance, water stopped flowing in taps ages ago. There seems to be no clearly publicized government initiative to address this issue which has implications for public health and quality of life in cities. As much as plant irrigation has been identified as a leading priority of government, perhaps the irrigation of people, especially in cities, should receive equal attention to improve public health, quality of life and the general business investment climate. In addition, government-run hospitals continue to sport shortages of life saving medicines and poor, if not abhorrent, conditions for patients.

Comments I gathered from what can loosely be called ‘the professional class’ generally decried the near-impossibility of boosting exports quickly enough to improve the country’s forex position now as needed if we want the people to feel the positive effects in the short term. For example fuel shortages, a direct result of Malawi’s low import cover caused in part by low exports and excessive taste for imports, still persist although not to the same extent as under Mutharika. The resumption of foreign aid is creditted with the fuel situation improvement. Foreign aid may help address these vicissitudes in the short term, the professionals postulate; but a lasting solution lies in finding ways to greatly expand our exports and their value; and government needs to find ways to do this durably but also rapidly for the results to be felt in people’s lives reasonably soon.

Mrs. Banda’s Bold Calculations

Amayi often states that she became President through a vote cast by God himself and not by humans in a general election as is normally the case. She is right. As former Vice President, she acceded to the Presidency following the death of dictator Bingu Mutharika in April last year as the Constitution requires. In May 2014, however, she will have to face the electorate of Malawi without God casting a ballot. Voters, in the flesh, will be deciding whether to give Mrs. Banda a mandate to start a five year presidential term in her own right. More than likely, they will be making their decision based on the manifest results of her efforts on the economy by that date.

Mrs. Banda is on record as challenging that her economic program would start bearing fruit eighteen months after it started. Clearly she does not have a whole lot of time. Amayi is calculating that the common sense of Malawians will have them understand and sympathize with her reasoning on the prospects for the current economy and her efforts to improve it; and that they will heed her pleas for patience. She is also calculating that at the end of eighteen months since she took office the rate of inflation will slow down enough for people to feel the relief. She is calculating, in addition, that the government’s fiscal position will improve enough to help her renew and expand basic government services such as water supply, electricity and hospital care including drug availbaility.

Indeed God will not cast a ballot for any candidates in local, parliamentary and presidential elections in May, 2014. Amayi must therefore also be calculating that God still wants her to remain President of the Republic of Malawi beyond 2014. That being the case, Mrs. Banda is probably calculating that God, too, is working hard for her in the interim. Choirs of Angels in heaven, if God wants Mrs. Banda to be President of Malawi beyond 2014, are probably chanting, ‘Amayi womwewo, kuti wa wa wa wa!!

 

Ambuje Che Tom Likambale is from Balaka Township, Malawi

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